Those Who Know Too Much

Sometimes it’s better now knowing things . . . Like how it feels to be alone, or what it’s like to feel your heart is broken . . . or how grief can tear you up inside when you lose someone you love dearly. I know this, and so do you, because you are here, on a sight about grief, reading this post. Unfortunately, all of us here “know too much.”

Death changes everything. It immediately alters how we see the world and how we react to certain things. Before we became so familiar with death and grief, most of us probably shrugged off a lot of things thinking they were “just” happening to someone else and not to us. We chose not to think about our vulnerability. In her book, Resilient Grieving After a Loss That Changes Everything, Lucy Hone says: “Death doesn’t discriminate. Death is everywhere and happens to us all; all those we love will die or have died. It is both certain and, at times, horrifically random.” (Hone, p. 59) Last night, at 10:00 pm on my way home from an event just 36 miles away, in the dark and the light rain, I was reminded first hand of the “horrific randomness of death.” What I came upon brought all of that home to me in a very real and vivid way.

Late in the afternoon I had made the 30 minute trip to the University of Iowa to hear my granddaughter play in one of the final band performances of the school year. Since last October I have had the privilege of attending these concerts, and I love being able to do that. However, while enjoying the concert last night I felt so very alone. My late husband loved all things musical and his grandchildren. He would have been so proud to be sitting in that now empty chair next to me, enjoying the concert. But he wasn’t . . . because he is dead. And last night, for whatever reason, that fact hit me very hard. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to having him gone. Accept it? Reluctantly, yes. Get used to it? No. Sitting there, listening to the beautiful music and being proud of my granddaughter, I thought, “How can things feel so good and yet so awful at the same time?” The band my granddaughter was in was the last to play. I noticed that parents of students who played earlier in the concert would leave after the person they’d come to see had performed. It was after 8:00 before my granddaughter was scheduled to take the stage, and the thought crossed my mind that if she were in one of those first groups I could have left early. Not that I didn’t like listening to each band perform, because I did, but simply because I was tired, and I could see this was going to be a late night by the time I got home. Turns out, it was a very good thing that I stayed. You might say it was a lifesaving decision.

I had only gotten about 5 miles out of town when I saw it…the flashing lights of an ambulance on the opposite side of the four lane highway, barreling towards the hospital. I remember thinking, that there was someone in that speeding ambulance who a few hours before may have “been just fine,” and now, suddenly they weren’t. They were in an ambulance, lights flashing, racing toward the emergency room. They had gone from OK to someone who, in a matter of hours or even minutes, might not even be alive anymore. When I was a principal of a small Catholic elementary school, students in one of our classes had a neat ritual. Any time an ambulance went by the school (which was quite often, as we were situated on a street that was the most direct route to the hospital), the teacher and students would all pause, make the sign of the cross, and say a silent prayer for the person in the ambulance. Somehow, it only seemed appropriate that now I would do the same. What I wasn’t prepared for was what lay ahead, waiting for me on my side of the highway.

As I came to the crest of a hill I could see it. . . an accident. And from the way the flashing colored lights surrounding it lit up the night sky, I surmised that it must be a big one. Suddenly, in my review mirror, far behind me but definitely closing in fast, I saw more flashing lights, so I pulled off to the side and waited for the patrol car to go flying by me. I slowed my speed as I approached the scene of the accident, not knowing if I would end up stopped in traffic, have to detour around it somehow, or be allowed to pass by. As it turned out, it was the latter. Slowly, guided by a fireperson in full regalia and with their brightly lit orange baton motioning to where I should go, I carefully made my way through the sea of flashing lights: Past firepeople sweeping debris from the highway; skirting alongside a long line of patrol cars, a fire truck, and scores of other emergency vehicles, until, finally, there it was, at the very end of this line up of tragedy. . . the car that had been a part of it all. Even in the dark it was easy to see that, given the smashed and twisted mass of steel that was now this vehicle, there was a very good chance that the person or persons who were inside of it were either in very critical condition, or perhaps did not survive.

I’m not sure it would be correct to say that something inside me snapped after seeing all of this, but I know it definitely would be on target to say that it unnerved me. I had just driven through a real-life example of “the horrific randomness” of death. And the fact was not lost on me that, had I been able to leave that concert 30 minutes earlier, I could have perhaps been a witness to this accident, or been the first person to come across it, or, even worse, been a part of it. And since losing my husband just a year ago had already given me ample reminders of how not in control of life we all are, this accident scene, the thought of what might had been if . . . suddenly made me want to be off this road. I wanted to be safely home. And most all, I wanted desperately the impossible: to know that when I got there, my husband would be there to comfort me and help me face this for what it was — part of life over which we have no control.

I needed to calm myself. Keep my mind on my driving and my eyes on the road. I needed to breathe out the sadness and feelings of helplessness and grief that seeing this accident site had allowed to resurface. So I did the only thing I could think of — I found my favorite songs, cranked up the volume on the radio, and sang my heart out. Sometimes my singing was punctuated by sobs or dramatized by tears, but I turned to music and found my way out of despair. By the time I reached my destination I was exhausted, but the lesson that we all too often forget had been reinforced: We are not promised tomorrow. All we have is now, this moment, this time in what is our life. No matter what our circumstances, whether we are grieving or blissfully going on our merry way, we need to remind ourselves to live in the moment and be thankful for each new day that we are given, because it is true, just as Bil Keane’s characters said in his comic strip, Family Circus: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift — that’s why it’s called the present.”

“Make sure you have clean underwear, she always said, in case you get into an accident. I always figured that’d be the least of my worries, but now I’m older and I see there’s a lot you can’t control and clean underwear is one of those you can. For the most part.”

“Clean Underwear” copywrite Brian Andres, 1995

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